Modularity

After the death of my fierce Nanna, my grandfather, otherwise lucid as ever, began to lose his grip on names. His grandson he called the little fella, his grandaughter the little girl, and nearly every object became the thing. Set the thing on the thing and bring me the thing, he’d say. Which thing? That thing, he’d point. The thing! His stories were even harder to interpret, with no landmarks at hand to aid in navigation. He’d gesture anyway, frowning at his failure to make us follow. When I was head of the research lab at Mobil — he liked to tell us — anyone who seemed to have a good idea, I’d say go ahead, work on that! He’d left the details up to others, and got his name on scores of patents — half the plastics of the age. He’d learned to read organic compounds with almost Talmudic devotion, and had come to understand the importance of thinking big, but not what can happen to small details that don’t fit into an engineer’s tidy equations. How they wash downstream and out to sea. I’m glad he didn’t live to read about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It might’ve reduced him to a complete stutter, so many bland things stripped of their thingness by decades of sunlight, his grand inventions converging in submerged islands and ground down into toxic floating sand.

9 Comments


  1. Wasn’t there another iteration of this here earlier? could have been the ghost in this machine, I guess.
    Stories need landmarks. Punctuation.
    I like the allusion to the Talmud here…it gives me a strong sense of an effort at repair, at making sense of things that have fallen apart. It’s extremely poignant for me without feeling trite. thanks.

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    1. Glad you liked, and yes — the first version was filled with ampers&s run amok, trying to reinforce the point about modularity — hence sand/s& as the last word. But it started to feel a little too contrived.

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  2. (o) indeed.

    though I wonder if all that sun-beached plastic isn’t somehow asserting its thingness, in an obstinate material sense, rather than losing it. Now that it’s garbage, we can’t take it for granted anymore, as furniture of the world around us. Some reckoning with the troublesome physicality of all those compounds becomes unavoidable; they’ve become things, not just background.

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  3. Interesting. Around the time that Don died, I began to notice much the same. I can’t remember names of people, and often point to “that thing” as I can’t remember what it’s called. I still remember place names very well – even the most backwoods, obscure places I’ve been. However, scientific names now leave a big blank in my thoughts — it’s like that part of my brain was electro-shocked and now has amnesia. I can actually feel an odd twinge in my head when I look at an insect and struggle to remember its scientific name. It feels creepy and disconcerting, like rubbing backwards against a sliver, only the sensation is in my brain. What little spanish I had left from my university days, entirely vanished last year. A couple of weeks ago, I ordered three different sets of spanish courses on CDs to listen to while I’m on this road this autumn and winter. I thought it might help me to start using whatever part of my brain it is now toast.

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    1. That’s very interesting, Bev (and scary). I wonder if there’s any psychological literature on this phenomenon — the apparent damage to memory associated with grief? Good for you to try and fight it with language tapes. Hope it works.

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  4. Dave – I don’t know if there’s been much in the way of formal research, but one thing I’ve come across on my own is plenty of mention of this “loss of memory” problem on blogs written by widows. Some people refer to it as “the widow’s fog” but are usually also including a general feeling of numbness, which I don’t really have. With me, it’s more like something got knocked out, as in zapping some circuits. I do think that forcing myself to work on memory-related projects will help. Also, just as soon as I get finished up here and on the road again, I’m hoping to do a lot more writing and join some online groups that will inspire that — Read Write Poem looks very interesting and will be one of the networks I will be looking at once I have a bit more time.

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    1. Wow. Well, fortunately the brain is a supple and self-healing instrument, at least when pushed in the right direction. Sounds as if you’ll be doing that. I look forward to your company on RWP.

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